This week's episode was my favorite episode to date. It was everything this show should be -- an open highway for the contestants to really show their stuff; a challenge dealing with the first principles of cuisine, and an episode with unimpeachable judging. This was a chance for the contestants to really step up. There would be no cruising along under the radar. You either did it or you didn't this time around.
Let's start this off by telling you where I'm coming from: As far as I'm concerned, when Andre Soltner evaluates someone's performance in the kitchen, he's speaking from the mountain top. There was, to my mind, no higher authority, no person closer to God, who one might have looked to for judgment on this particular challenge.
Chef Soltner, for those who might not be fully aware of his history, was the chef/owner of Lutece in New York City, which was for decades one of -- if not THE best -- the most important restaurant in America. He is the very epitome of pioneering, Old School French chefs, part of that groundbreaking first wave who came over in the 50s and 60s and virtually taught us how to eat. His restaurant kitchen, by example, inspired countless cooks and diners alike how to cook, what to aspire to, hope for, expect of ourselves when we approached food in the future. Serving relatively simple yet elegant, nonsense-free, but always perfectly prepared French/Alsatian style specialties, Lutece was a veritable temple of haute cuisine.
Soltner himself, though always besieged for reservations by the world's most powerful clients, remained always humble, fair, egalitarian -- famously refusing to cancel an ordinary customer's reservation even to make room for the French prime minister. He never took a day off. Ever. He ate the same simple lunch every day. And when he sold Lutece, late in life, he shared equity with every employee. When Julia Child and Jacques Pepin were explaining and writing and showing us what French food could be, Soltner showed us every day and every night -- by doing it...
I will never forget eating at Lutece as a young student. Hair halfway down my back, dressed like absolute crap, completely unprepared, uninformed as to how to order, how to tip, feeling desperately intimidated, and uncomfortable as I struggled to impress my date, we were, as soon as we entered, welcomed warmly by Madame Soltner as if we were regulars, helped delicately and generously through the menu and wine list (avoiding mention of the obvious fact that I could only afford the cheapest possible options), and were even visited tableside by a kindly Chef Soltner.
I may have looked like a dressed up Lil' Abner, but we were treated as if we were no less important than the Kissinger or Mitterrand parties nearby. The food at Lutece was extraordinary for its time -- and remained impeccable until Soltner's last day. He's a hero to me. Frankly, had I been one of the contestants tonight -- and seen him among the judges? I would have collapsed in a twitching, gibbering heap.
Add Sirio Maccione for the Quickfire, Jacques Torres, Alain Sailhac , and Cesare Casella to that awe-inspiring panorama of heavyweights, and you've got a veritable Council of Elders of European cuisine -- a living history of how we eat now -- over a century of expertise and experience, known and respected by every modern chef. The contestants surely knew these men. And just as surely, quaked with fear.
Top Chef fans? Just as no one can say boo about the judging this week, no one -- NO ONE -- can complain about the challenges. No quirky, kooky, product-placing roach-coach stunts this time, my friends. No one had to make quesadillas over an open can of sterno in the back of a moving Rav 4. Or prepare a festive snack out of Froot Loops while wearing a Glad Family of Bags over their head. Tonight, the challenges were not only perfectly suited to the task of deciding who might someday be a "Top Chef", but were also perfectly matched to the judging panel.
For instance: Whose attempt at recreating a time tested Le Cirque signature dish taste came closest to approximating the original? Viewers were saved from having to discuss, debate or even think about the answer to that question. Just ask Sirio. Because he, better than any person alive, was qualified to tell you.
"What to do with a chicken, an onion, and a potato?" is about as perfect and straightforward a challenge as could be imagined. Particularly in the venue of the French Culinary Institute -- and particularly in front of these judges, for whom those ingredients are seen as a Holy Trinity of Fundamental Elements. Along with the classic " Make Me An Omelet " test (which would have ended the show a little too quickly), the Trial of The Chicken is traditionally seen as a near religious passage, a station of the cross, an early task on the One True Path to chefdom. Just as it is widely believed that "you can tell everything you need to know about a cook by how he makes an omelet", the cooking of a simple chicken makes an open book of whoever prepared it. There's no wiggle room, no lying, no weaseling, and no misrepresenting when you're facing the Test of The Chicken (or the Omelet, for that matter). No amount of garnish or frippery will help evade the truth. As they say in the courtroom: "Res Ipsa Loquitor" (The thing speaks for itself.) You might have noticed that Hung won both challenges. Sirio Maccione picked him for the Quickfire winner. Chef Andre Soltner picked him for the Elimination winner...and that's enough for me.
Let's step back and look at who did what -- and what we might have learned about the remaining contestants. We received very good supporting evidence for the proposition that Hung and Casey remain the candidates to beat. It was a close call between the two on the Quickfire -- and an equally close call in Elimination. In the Quickfire, both were able to "deconstruct" or analyze the dish in question and recreate it efficiently.
In Elimination, unlike the other three contestants, they read the judges and the situation brilliantly: These judges were old school, traditionalists, teachers, with a shared love and respect for basic techniques and the classics.
Hung, faced with chicken as a main ingredient, wisely made it all about the chicken, doing a fairly austere "en souvide" preparation designed to maximize the bird's natural flavor and to retain its moisture. Casey, almost as shrewdly, did a very nice "homage" to coq au vin. What might have seemed like hair-splitting between the judges as to whether the dish (classically intended for older, tougher roosters) was appropriate for a young chicken was in fact a useful perspective on the fact. (It could be argued by purists) that Casey had not made the most of her main ingredient -- she had, in fact, "wasted" its relative tenderness and versatility by treating it as one would (traditionally) have a less-good bird. Coq au vin is a preparation designed from its inception, as a means to disguise, or at least, make the most of, a relatively cheap and less desirable protein. Yet it's also a beloved comfort food of the French -- and she clearly executed well, even garnishing with the peak-season chef favorite, ramps. I thought it was an outstanding effort.
Casey, I think, deserves a lot more respect from some of the grassy knoll conspiracy theorists who've commented here. She's clearly a very fine cook -- fully capable of excellence under fire. Let the distinguished judges' comments on this episode be the final nail in the wrongheaded and now utterly discredited argument that Casey has somehow been getting a free pass 'cause of her looks. Other than the brief, freakish, onion anomaly, she has shown nothing but chefly qualities. I, for one, didn't care if she looked like Broderick Crawford when I judged the airline meal challenge: her dish was far and away the best.
Dale and Brian floundered in too-deep waters.
Dale surprised me. In a bad way. One of the smarter contestants, he seems to suffer from frequent brain farts. (Ex: the notorious Scented Candle Incident. The Missing Filet Incident.) It was yet another mighty wind let loose this evening. After a weak, half-assed attempt to crib from Hung in the Quickfire, he made the truly wrongheaded decision to prepare a "Duet of Chicken" for the panel of Wise Men (and Wise Woman -- respect to Dorothy Hamilton!). Did he REALLY think this bunch of veterans would be impressed by an utterly pointless exercise in circa 1993 pomposity? The very opposite of the "less is more" credo by which most of this sage council had no doubt made their bones?
This failure of the imagination was followed by yet another in a series of failures of execution when he added The Missing Sauce Incident to his yellow sheet. He totally misread the crowd. I can almost promise you that a simple, yet properly roasted chicken -- with onions and potatoes pan-fried in goose fat would have gone over gangbusters with these guys. I don't care how fine Brian's "Sausage Shepherd's Pie (with Chicken)" tasted. Let's assume it was indeed, delicious. Spectacularly so. I would argue that it was an effort more redolent of chickenshit than actual chicken. Faced with an opportunity to shine -- in front of perhaps the greatest assemblage of chefs Brian will ever cook for in his career, he prepared something that was neither "about the chicken", nor well-targeted for the venue. As if frightened to fail, he made something shapeless, demonstrative of technical skills (knifework, presentation and so on) any talented home cook could be expected to have. I may love Grandma's cooking. But I'm not going to hire her for my restaurant. What did we learn from Brian's effort? That he's frightened by the classics -- and that they sell some mighty good sausage at the Union Square greenmarket.
Note how Soltner, during final deliberations, based his decision on: " If I were to choose a cook for my kitchen..." and then, with that criteria in mind, chose Hung. THAT'S what this Elimination challenge was all about! Getting Andre Soltner to say exactly that about YOU. That ain't happening if all you're offering is meatloaf -- I don't care how good. Brian shrunk from the challenge. Hung and Casey correctly identified the nature of the challenge and grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns. Brian successfully skated. Dale, at least, tried to dazzle -- however badly it turned out. Sara sank like a stone -- having long since paddled far out of her depth. Raw fish in the Quickfire ... a last, desperate grab for the familiar flavors of Jamaica ... undercooked chicken in the Elimination, and it was see ya, wouldn't wanna be ya. I think she's to be commended. She went a long way on modest skills. She outlasted more experienced chefs. She was, when called upon to do so, often able to pull a rabbit out of her hat, rise to the occasion, find a way through. She handled a lot of pressure with aplomb. And she was a good cook. This time, however, just not good enough. I see my tequila-swilling crony Eric Ripert on the promo for next week's episode. And what looks like something to do with fish. This...is gonna be good.